Cultural Sri Lanka-11787

Understanding & Visiting the Culture of Sri Lanka

Our entree into Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle was Anuradhapura (anu-rad-ha-pu-ra). We arrived on the train from Jaffna on December 6th and easily found our guest inn. It was a Poya day, so it was rice and curry with water for dinner.


Poya Days
A Poya occurs every full moon. Poya is the name given to Uposatha holidays in Buddhism. There are 12 -13 Poyas per year and the term was developed from the Pali and Sanskrit word for uposatha – signifying “fast day”. Business and shops are generally closed on Poya Days and sales of alcohol and meat are banned.

Some places catering to western tourists will sell you an “apple juice” if you can’t wait until the next day, but as restaurants and cafes that served beer in Sri Lanka were few and far between, it didn’t seem to matter to us. Virtually all the food we ate in Sri Lanka was vegetarian, so the meat didn’t matter either.

We arrived in Anuradhapura on the train from Jaffna (you can read about that journey here)

There are two ways to visit Anuradhapura. The official way, where you go to the museum and buy a foreign visitor ticket for US$25 each and then rent a tuk tuk or driver for the day and drive between all the sites – and they cover a vast 37 kilometers. Or there’s the local way. This involves finding a driver who “knows” people.

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We’d found ourselves a driver who knew some folks and also drove an airconditioned Prius. Knowing people obviously comes with it’s benefits.

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For 8,000 LKR (US$60) (and yes we could have bargained more no doubt) our driver and guide took us to the major areas of the sacred city.

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The only time we came close to meeting one of the folks that he knows was when we stopped to take a look at the Moonstone and when before we hopped out of the car, he handed up a set of tickets and said “my friend is waiting for you”.

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The friend duly signed the tickets (again by the looks of things), and handed them back to us.

This city was established around a cutting from the ‘tree of enlightenment’, the Buddha’s fig tree, brought there in the 3rd century B.C. by Sanghamitta, the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns. It was the Ceylon political and religious capital that flourished for 1,300 years, and was then abandoned after an invasion in 993, when the capital was moved to Polonaruwa.

The Bodhi Tree
The Bodhi Tree Temple (The Sri Maha Bodhiya), is the second most sacred place in Sri Lanka, after the Sri Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Tooth, in Kandy.

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The tree grew from a cutting of the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment – it has been guarded continuously for more than 2,000 years – the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world.

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Shoes must be removed here and at many of the sites you visit in Anuradhapura. Stones are sharp, if you have sensitive western feet like me, you’d be wise to keep your socks on.

Lovamahapaya: The Brazen Palace
When you hear the name “The Brazen Palace”, you expect something spectacular. And it probably was in its day. Nine stories high, a vast complex built to house monks whose duties included tending the Bodhi Tree, it’s now little more than 1600 stone pillars, all that remains of what was primarily a wooden structure with a bronze roof and walls that were decorated with silver and precious stones.

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The oldest and largest stupa at Anuradhapura is Ruwanwwelisaya. It’s fully restored and painted white and is a place of active worship.

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There are several smaller stupas also in the complex.

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The main stupa stands 103 meters and has a circumference of 290 meters, building commenced in 140 BC.

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Relics of the Buddha were housed here

Stupas or Dagobas
There are five main types of Budhist stupa – based on their function and their style.

  • Relic stupa: relics or remains of the Buddha, his disciples and lay saints are interred.
  • Object stupa: items interred are objects belonged to the Buddha or his disciples such as a begging bowl or robe.
  • Commemorative stupa: , built to commemorate events in the lives of Buddha or his disciples.
  • Symbolic stupa: symbolises aspects of Buddhist theology.
  • Votive stupa: commemorates visits or used to gain spiritual benefits, usually at the site of prominent stupas which are regularly visited.
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This large stupa or Dagoba is 120m (400ft.) tall and was the third tallest structure in the ancient world (after the Great Pyramids at Giza), and the largest in Sri Lanka.

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The Moonstone
The moonstone is distinctive Sinhalese art. It’s a semicircular slab of granite placed at the entrance to important shrines – a spiritual doorstep that usually contains the following – and you can see this on the photo.

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There are representations of four animals – the elephant (for birth), the horse (for old age), the lion (for sickness) and the bull (for death). Surrounding these animals are vines or snakes (for attachment to life) and geese (for purity). At the far side of the stone, a carved lotus – or the achievement of Nirvana.

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And it’s here that we met our drivers friend.. and those recycled tickets came into play..

What did we miss?
There were parts of the old city that we missed, like the Archeology Museum – where our driver didn’t have any friends – and there are ruins galore here as well. Yesterday had been the Poya day, which is when most of the pilgrims come visiting, and there were still some vestiges of large numbers of visitors, mainly though Sri Lankan.

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Cultured out by 130pm, we headed to the bus station and hopped onto “air conditioned” bus heading for Kandy, the next stop on our cultural triangle tour. Nige sat behind the driver and my little fold down seat next to him only stayed down while the bus was going straight.

The culture we were here in Kandy to see this time was popular culture – Cricket at the lovely Pallakelle stadium about 17 kilometers out of the city.

It’s not possible to write about the cultural aspects of Sri Lanka and not talk about cricket. We were lucky enough to be in the country while England were playing a One Day International (ODI) series against Sri Lanka and we bought tickets online, for 1000 LKR (around GBP5.00, US$7.50). For this we got to sit in the lower grandstand at Pallakelle. There’s free seating, so just get there relatively early and don’t move from your seat.

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And that way, you get to mix with the Sri Lankan fans and party along while a game of cricket also goes on. I have to say, for a crowd that parties hard while seemingly ignoring what’s going on on the field, they certainly notice when a wicket is taken or a boundary scored.

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In the second game that we took in we were lucky enough to see local man and Sri Lankan hero, Sangakarra not only make his century, but wave his goodbyes to his home ground. The crowd knew that he wouldn’t be making anymore ODI performances here, and were suitably upstanding.

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Cricket in Sri Lanka isn’t like cricket at home. This is an out and out party. There is music, there is dancing. Fair enough it is definitely dad dancing, but boy do these guys know how to have fun. And there is cheap beer.

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A large beer is only 200 LKR (GBP1.00 US$1.52) – compare that to Edgbaston or Lords if you can. Pallakelle lets itself down with the worst sound system in the world and a food selection that amounts to fries and hot dogs. Bring your own Rice and Curry!

The Cultural triangle is situated right in the centre of the country, so it was literally a week of culture-fest. Our next stop was Dambulla. Cue the local bus, where we thundered along for hours on end, arriving around noon at the lovely Blue Sky Guesthouse, close to the Dambulla Cave Temples. Our host was out of town, but his fabulous assistant arranged a tuk tuk for us and we headed straight off to Sigiriya. You can read about our visit to Sigiriya here.

Dambulla Cave Temple

Our driver drops us at the Cave Temple when we return to Dambulla – just 30 minutes away. The curtain has been closed on our tuk tuk, the roads are awash and if he can see the road, then he’s not letting on, we certainly can’t.

This is the start of the rain that caused the huge floods and landslides, where thousands were made homeless and more than 20 people died.

In Dambulla, it’s another 1500 LKR (US$11.40, GBP 7.50) as a foreign visitor to enter the cave temples, with tickets acquired in the office at the bottom of the hill, next to the Jagger-esque museum of Buddhism, which perches just below the biggest Buddha in the world that also has a museum.

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It’s a 10 minute walk up the hill, up slippery rock, steps and a little sand.

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Shoes are dropped at the 50 LKR per pair of shoes storage stall, just prior to the entry to the temple and then your tender little western feet start to take on punishment.

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The ground is wet in places, so we take off our socks. Gritty sand on paving stones slows us down. The rocks are sticky. My mind shuts down to the possibilities based on the number of monkeys and stray dogs around and I wonder how many tourists suffer injuries from being barefoot in temple areas, then consider that a skin colored padded sole that applies to my feet would be a best seller for travelers.

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We start at the fifth cave and work out way back towards the first. Smallest first, Insights Guide in hand, we walk through the painted ceilings, the statues on display and the container for holy water still used today.

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Our penultimate cultural stop is Polonnaruwa – we catch a local bus from Dambulla, hand over the 3000 LKR (US$25, GBP 15) entrance fee – which really is becoming rather tiresome. What with these high fees and the expensive accommodation, I’m starting to feel a little ripped off. It’s a good job the transport and food is so cheap!

Rain is most definitely threatening. We came here with the thought that we’d hire bikes and cycle through the area, but we cave in and get a tuk tuk for 300 LKR to take us to the furthest point – about 3 kilometers away, figuring we’ll just walk our way back.

First, though we spent 45 minutes in the museum – which is well documented, well signed and tagging behind a few folks who’ve hired guides, we catch a few titbits that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Then, as our tuk tuk drops us at the parking area closest to the Gal Vihara temple the rain that has been promising all day begins. First as a drizzle, then a deluge.

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We take shelter with the guards and ticket collectors for a good 15 minutes until the rain starts to abate.

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The Gal Vihara, the rock temple of the Buddha houses four carved Buddhas, the reclining Buddha is truly spectacular, with inconsistencies in the rock actually adding to the art.

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It’s here that we see the rule about “not taking selfies or photographs with your back to the Buddha” enforced, as the whistles come out and an Australian family has to have the rules explained to them.

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After the rain abates a little, we begin a slow meander back towards the museum area, umbrellas hoisted, skipping round the vendors hawking mini moonstones, tiny Ganesh figures and all other manner of items that would weigh down my Osprey.

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On the whole, I enjoyed Polonnaruwa more than Anuradhapura. Perhaps I’d immersed myself a little more in reading about the historical context and I’m surprised, as it was miserable walking from pile of ruins to pile of ruins in the rain, taking off shoes and sandals and scrunching through gritty puddles.

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Polonnaruwa is much more compact than Anuradhapura – there were also a lot fewer people here. And, despite the rain, it was pleasant to walk between the sites. I’m, sure though that we missed highlights, as the walk ways flooded and we sought shelter many times.

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We were lucky enough to miss the vast majority of the flooding in Sri Lanka, as we’d moved further south

Retrospectively I’d start from the museum and head towards Gal Vihara, it was the most spectacular of sights, and what came afterwards was a disappointment comparatively speaking. Of course retrospectively,  I’d also not have there be a day of deluging rain either..

Our last stop on the cultural tour was Kandy. Again. (we were applying for visas to India in Kandy, hence the multiple visits) This time was our final visit. Forced onto the bus from Colombo, as landslides had closed the train tracks, we finally visited the Temple of the Tooth Relic.

There’s one train track that we visited in Sri Lanka that I’ll never forget. The train that was lost to the tsunami that devastated the island in 2004. We visited the area and a small private museum 10 years after the tsunami hit. I recommend it. It’s moving beyond words.

Kandy and the Tooth Temple
It was still raining when we arrived again in Kandy.

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It was even actually raining inside our accommodation. After dropping passports at the Indian visa office we headed in the direction of the Tooth Temple, where another 1000 LKR (US$7.60, GBP 5.00) each must be paid – paying your respects is an expensive business in this country! Shoes must also be deposited and this time, as it was still raining and water was puddled in great pools, socks were also left. The entire complex is shoe less – and it’s quite a way to walk around.

As with Sigiriya there was a DVD that we were given (not that we have anything to play it on) and we used the Insights guide to wander our way around.

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The Temple of the Tooth relic is Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic – a tooth of the Buddha. During a puja (offerings and prayers) the room housing the relic is open – but you don’t see the tooth. It’s held in a gold casket shaped like a stupa and this contains a series of six caskets of diminishing size. The Russian doll of tooth containers as it were.

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The weather and the cost have taken its toll on my cultural stamina. Here are the photos…

It’s easy to visit the primary cultural aspects of Sri Lanka – being that they’re grouped pretty centrally, but it does mean that you’ll be concentrating your cultural effort with little time off in between, unless you specifically build time in.

The cost of visiting for foreign tourists is also comparatively high – when you look at the cost of transport and food in the country. When you can get a very very good rice and curry meal for US$3.50, but a ticket to the cultural site costs US$30 it just feels as though something is not sustainable.

Travel Tips for Exploring Sri Lanka

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